The number of children and teens who risked their lives to cross the Darien Gap, the dangerous jungle that separates Colombia and Panama, reached a record high between January and September, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported Monday.

UNICEF said 19,000 minors faced the rigors of the jungle during that period. At least 1 in 5 of the migrants who walked the area, which is filled with wild animals and occupied by criminals, are children. Half of those children were younger than 5.

“The rapid growth in the influx of children heading north from South America should be urgently treated as a serious humanitarian crisis throughout the region, beyond Panama,” said Jean Gough, UNICEF director for Latin America and the Caribbean, in a statement.

The number of migrant children in the Darien during the nine-month period almost tripled the total number of the last five years. The agency said 109 children were recorded crossing the area in 2017, and two years later, the figure increased to 3,956. In 2020, it dropped to 1,653 due to restrictions related to the pandemic.

This year 150 children, including some newborns, arrived in Panama without their parents, according UNICEF.

Meanwhile, some 20,000 other migrants — many of them in families — are waiting to cross the Darien, paused in Necoclí, a small coastal town in Colombia. Some of them stay in hotels, while others spend nights under tents on the beach.

The economic crises in Latin America and pandemic-related restrictions led more than 67,100 people, the majority of them Haitians, to cross the Darien between January and August, according to Panamanian officials.

Most of the Haitian migrants come from Chile and Brazil, where they took refuge after an earthquake devastated their home country in 2010. Many of the children who make the dangerous journey were born in those South American countries.

Now, they are trying to reach the United States despite the deportation of thousands of migrants in recent weeks.

Children crossing the Darien usually arrive in Panama with illnesses from drinking untreated water or with breathing problems after spending days in the humid jungle, sleeping in the open and crossing rivers. On the Panamanian side, organizations such as UNICEF provide health services and support.

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